The Detroit Red Wings are clearly the class of the Central Division. Times won‚Äôt be as easy for the Wings as the Chicago Blackhawks are on the rise and the Nashville Predators are always a tough out for the Wings but they will run away with the division by at least 15 points
1. Detroit Red Wings (54-21-7) 2007-2008 Stanley Cup Champions
In the salary cap era it is difficult for a Stanley Cup winner to field the same team the following season. The Detroit Red Wings have not only found a way to bring everyone back but they have a found a way to get even better with the addition of prize acquisition Marian Hossa. Hossa who spurned offers from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers had his sights set on Detroit from the beginning of free agency. Hossa joins a team that ranked first in the league in 6 different categories including points and wins. Hossa joins Pavel Datsyuk (31goals ‚Äì 66 assists ‚Äì 97 points) and Henrik Zetterberg (43 goals ‚Äì 49 assists ‚Äì 92 points) to form the league‚Äôs most dynamic group of forwards. The opposition has a daunting task to match up against the Red Wings top three lines: Henrik Zetterberg will center Jiri Hudler and Johan Franzen, while Valtteri Filppula will play between Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson. Pavel Datsyuk will center Marian Hossa and Thomas Holmstrom. Nicklas Lidstrom bolsters the Wings blue line that at times can dominant a game for long periods and stifle the opposition. The Wings are not only the most talented team in the game but they are the best coached team in the game. They have everything going for them to repeat as Stanley Cup champions
How to beat the Red wings: The way to beat the Wings is to play physical and get quality shots on goaltender Chris Osgood who let‚Äôs be honest isn‚Äôt Roberto Luongo. Team‚Äôs try to dump and chase against the Wings and it just doesn‚Äôt work. You have to hit them in the mouth and be able to skate with them. There are only a few teams that can skate with the Red Wings
2. Chicago Blackhawks (40-34-8)
The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the most exciting young teams in hockey. The Hawks made great strides last season and expectations are high heading into the 08-09 campaign. The Blackhawks made two key acquisitions this summer signing defenseman Brian Campbell and goaltender Cristobal Huet. Upfront the Hawks are led by 2007 1st overall pick Patrick Kane (21 goals ‚Äì 51 assists ‚Äì 72 yards) and Jonathan Toews (24 goals). Toews missed 18 games last season and should easily improve his numbers from last year. Toews is poised for a big season. Martin Havlat will be the key for the Hawks. Patrick Sharp (36 goals) will move from wing to center this season. Sharp who went from 20 goals ‚Äì 36 goals will likely be somewhere in the middle this season. The addition of Brian Campbell solidifies a young blue line. Campbell will take the pressure off of Cam Barker, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. The Hawks have the makings of being a playoff team this year but they need Martin Havlat to stay in the lineup. Havlat one of the games most talented players has only played 109 games in the past three seasons. If the Hawks can get 60 games out of Havlat it will be a bonus
G Nikolai Khabibulin ‚Äì the addition of Huet has made Khabibulin expendable. The Blackhawks have put the Bulin Wall on waivers and found no takers. Re-entry waivers is a possibility and according to reports the Hawks may find a taker in the KHL league
3. Nashville Predators
The Predators continue to field a competitive team by building through the draft and adding a key veteran from time to time. GM David Poile was busy again this season to clear enough cap space to keep his young core together. Last season it was Tomas Voukon, this summer it was G Chris Mason and D Marek Zidlicky. To counter those moves Poile re-signed defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter along with G Dan Ellis. The loss of Zidlicky will hurt and the departure of Alexander Radulov (27 goals) will hinder the Predators chances to improve their 27th ranked power play. Jason Arnott (28 goals), J.P. Dumont ( 29 goals) and Martin Erat (23 goals) will be counted on to improve their numbers. Despite some key losses the Predators will be in the playoff hunt once again.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (34-36-12)
The Blue Jackets made major changes this summer after missing the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. Gone are forwards Nikolai Zherdev, Dan Fritsche, Gilbert Brule and D Ron Hainsey. In: forwards Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger: defensemen Christian Backman, Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin. The pressure will be on newcomers R.J. Umberger (4yr ‚Äì 15 million) and Kristian Huselius (4yr ‚Äì 19 million) to produce early and often to bolster an offense that ranked 29th in the entire NHL. Both will be solid contributors but they don‚Äôt have the ability to carry a team. Rick Nash (38 goals) and Nikolai Zherdev (27 goals) who is now in New York were the only Blue Jackets last season to score over 20 goals. The Blue Jackets are moving in the right direction and prospects Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov (injury) are something to look forward to, but the playoffs are only a pipe dream in Columbus.
5. St. Louis Blues (33 ‚Äì 36 ‚Äì 13)
the Blues were dealt a serious blow when it was revealed defensemen Erik Johnson would be sidelined for 6-9 months with a knee injury. On defense Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman are serviceable D and the Blues need Jay McKee to stay healthy and step up his game. If those three can play at a strong level the Blues will be able to keep the puck out of the net with Manny Legace between the pipes. Upfront Keith TKachuk (27 goals) is past his prime and Paul Kariya (16 goals) needs to get back to the 30 goal plateau. Brad Boyes (43 goals) and Andy McDonald are a strong one-two-punch down the middle. A player to watch is prospect T.J. Oshie who is making a strong bid to make the team. He‚Äôll add some scoring to the blues 26th ranked attack and the Blues should score more goals this year but don‚Äôt look for them to crack the top 20. This team will compete but the 2008-2009 season will be a wash for them
Keith Tkachuk ‚Äì Entering the final year of his contract Tkachuk could be on the move again. He‚Äôs not the scorer he use to be and is getting up there in age and despite not being the best teammate, a contender will make a bid for him